The Russian foreign ministry has developed a sudden enthusiasm for the work of Human Rights Watch after the New York based organisation
issued a statement last week accusing armed opposition elements of committing abuses in Syria.
Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry's Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, expressed "deep concern" at the violations – and his remarks were duly reported by
Sana (the official Syrian news agency), Hizbullah's
al-Manar in Lebanon and
The Voice of
According to Sana, Dolgov also claimed that the statement from Human Rights Watch "stresses the correctness of Russia's principled stance that is committed to not allowing human rights violations". In fact, it said nothing of the kind.
Human Rights Watch has now issued a further statement complaining about Russia's selective use of its findings – ignoring all those that criticise the Syrian regime:
Since the beginning of the protests in Syria, Human Rights Watch has produced over 60 publications, including three extensive reports, on human rights violations by Syrian government forces. These publications contain detailed documentation of widespread and systematic abuses, including killings of peaceful protesters, shelling of residential neighborhoods, large-scale arbitrary detention and torture, “disappearances,” executions, denial of medical assistance, and looting ...
None of these findings have been ever acknowledged by Russian officials.
Instead, despite overwhelming evidence of egregious crimes committed by the Syrian security forces, Russia provides diplomatic and military support to Bashar al-Assad’s government and has repeatedly blocked international action aimed at stopping the violations and bringing those responsible for these crimes to justice ...
Russia should not pick and choose. If it relies on Human Rights Watch’s findings to support its condemnation of abuses by the Syrian opposition, it should pay equal attention to the extensive documentation of violations by government forces and support international efforts to stop those violations.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 March 2012. Comment.
a bulwark against imperialism?
To anyone who has followed events in Syria over the last 12 months it ought to be obvious that there's a popular struggle under way for liberation from a brutal and oppressive regime. The regime, meanwhile, is battling to hold on to power and the
privileges of the clique around
it. Lacking legitimacy at home, the regime justifies its existence by claiming to be a bulwark against imperialism and a defender of the Palestinians.
This propaganda line doesn't stand up to much
serious scrutiny, though in the west it has gained credence among some elements on the left.
In an article for the Socialist Review, however, Miriyam Aouragh looks at the regime's anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian credentials – and finds them wanting.
Syria under the Assads has supported anti-US and anti-Israel movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah, she argues – but only insofar as they are deemed to benefit the regime:
"Syria has only ever offered selective support to the Palestinians, conditional on the regime's interests ... So the Syrian regime has been prepared to back the Palestinians' resistance at some points, only to turn on it when it threatens to go beyond its control."
Its record on imperialism has also been contradictory:
"In 1991, Hafez Assad, father of Bashar, helped the US in its war on Iraq. But the regime continued to support resistance to Israeli occupation and opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (while quietly aiding the US by choking off support for the Iraqi resistance). The regime offered its services in the "war on terror", becoming one of the stops in the global rendition
Aouragh also dismisses the idea that the fall of the Assad regime will make things worse for the Palestinians:
"The Arab regimes have at every point attempted to limit and control the Palestinian movement, Syria has been at the forefront of this. The fall of the regime does not mean the end of the resistance, as Hamas has shown when it broke all its links with the regime and publicly supported the revolution.
"Hamas's leadership's motives may not simply be a question of siding with the revolution, but nor are they simply blindly following Qatar. They are making a bet based on the expectation that the Syrian regime will fall. But nevertheless it opens up space for greater solidarity between Palestinians and the Syrian revolution.
"The revolutions in the Arab world will release the Palestinian movement from the stifling interference of these regimes. The revolution in Syria is not a 'revolution against the resistance', or 'a western plot' but a popular uprising that opens the possibility for the Palestinian resistance to re-emerge once again as a popular movement."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 March 2012. Comment.
and the email sceptics
As soon as the leaked "Assad emails" began to appear last week, As'ad AbuKhalil (who blogs as The Angry Arab) announced, very confidently, that they were a hoax.
"It is so lacking in credibility," he
wrote. "It took me minutes to reach my conclusion. Al-'Alam TV guy is giving advice to Asad directly to his email? ... And the notion that Asma' Al-Asad, knowing that eyes are all on her, resorts to order goods through the internet is not believable."
While leaks should always be viewed with a degree of scepticism, pending confirmation, dismissing them out of hand
can be as foolish as blind credulity.
For example, the evidence of Asma's shopping activities revealed in the emails looks pretty solid. As the Guardian
made clear at the
outset, suppliers of the goods confirmed that the email exchanges were genuine.
As for al-Alam TV's man (Hussein Mortada), the emails do not suggest
– as The Angry Arab claims – that he was advising President Assad
directly. They were addressed to one of Assad's media advisers, Hadeel al-Ali.
Ali then forwarded one of them to the president, asking him to read it because it "represents a lot of people's opinions". Mortada, incidentally, had been approached by the Guardian for confirmation before the emails were published but failed to return
calls – so he's not rushing to deny that he sent them.
In his latest blog post on the subject, The Angry Arab claims that the email address
identified as that of President Assad (email@example.com) actually belonged to someone else. For supporting evidence, he has been studying
an email about Syria's relations with Turkey and concludes "from the phraseology and the manner of address" that it cannot have been sent by Bashar
Indeed, it cannot. The email contains a
memo reporting key points from a meeting with the Turkish
ambassador (it doesn't say who met him). The memo itself is
addressed to presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and its
author is not identified. The header at the top of the email
indicates that Shaaban then passed the memo without a
covering note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poring over the text to demonstrate that
the memo was not written by Assad is thus a pointless
exercise, since there is no reason to suppose that he did
But supposing for a moment that email@example.com was
not Bashar's personal email address, whose was it? Citing
opposition website, The Angry Arab claims that "Sam" is actually
Dallah, Dean of the Higher Institute of Business Administration in Syria.
Dr Sam Dallah
Apart from the firstname "Sam", is there any reason to
think this might be true? Dr Dallah has played a fairly central role in Syria's so-called reform programme but even so, and looking at the host of emails so far released, it's hard to understand why so many officials and others would be bombarding him with information and advice. Why, for example,
would Bouthaina Shaaban send him a memo about Syrian-Turkish
And why would Fawaz Akhras bother sending his suggestions for improving the regime's propaganda effort to Dr Dallah at the Higher Institute of Business Administration when his own son-in-law is the person running the country?
Similarly, if firstname.lastname@example.org is Dallah and not Assad, what are we to make of all those
lovey-dovey emails from Asma? Are we to conclude that she was carrying on an affair with Dallah behind the president's back?
The idea that "Sam" is really Dallah just doesn't make sense.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 March 2012. Comment.
Syria and the art of revolution
Dictators often have an odd relationship with the arts. The late Hafez al-Assad, for instance, dreamed of providing Damascus with a fine new opera house. He never saw it completed but in 2004 it was finally opened by his son and daughter-in-law, Bashar and Asma.
week, The Assad House for Arts and Culture (as the
building is officially known) will be staging Gao Xingjian's absurdist drama,
Stop. When first produced in China, it ran to 13 performances
and was then closed by the authorities on grounds of political ambiguity. It's a story about people who spend 10 years waiting for a bus
and complaining before they eventually decide to walk.
I can't help thinking that Syrians will
detect a subversive message in the play but perhaps the
regime is assuming it must be OK since it comes from China.
Either way, its Damascus run will be even shorter than that
in China – only five nights.
Just across the road from the Assad opera house is Syria's national library – or, to give it its proper title, the
Library. Its logo shows an open book with the head of Hafez al-Assad suspended above it, though he's not looking at the book.
One of Bashar al-Assad's key advisers is Bouthaina
Shaaban, formerly professor of romantic poetry at Damascus university. As well as speaking up
for the regime in articles for the western media, she translated Chinua Achebe's celebrated novel,
Apart, into Arabic.
Beneath the civilised veneer, of course, there's a different story – which was the theme of a
panel discussion in London last Friday: "Culture under fire: creative resistance in Syria".
Novelist Manhal Alsarraj described her first ventures into literature after listening to a radio programme about new writing and submitting a short story which was well received. She then wrote a novel,
Kama Yanbaghi li-Nahr ("As the river must"), which related to the 1982 massacre in her home town, Hama – and sent it to the authorities for approval. A reply came back saying that while it was good at a technical level, the subject matter made it unsuitable for publication.
Her book (extract in English
here) later won an award in the UAE and Alsarraj has continued to write though, not surprisingly, she now lives in Sweden.
Ferzat, Syria's most famous political cartoonist, has also left the country. Last August he was
beaten up by the regime's thugs and the attackers made a point of injuring his hands, apparently sending a message that he should stop drawing. A few weeks earlier, Ibrahim
al-Qashoush, the writer of a popular song attacking Assad, had received a similarly symbolic punishment – found dead with his vocal chords removed.
Ferzat used to draw cartoons for the official daily, Tishreen, though some were rejected because of their content. In 2001, shortly after Bashar became president, the regime seemed to be opening up a little and Ferzat was given permission to publish a satirical weekly.
Addomari (The Lamplighter") was Syria's first privately-owned newspaper in 38 years and for a while enjoyed spectacular success – until the regime became nervous and forced it to close.
For a long time, Ferzat avoided caricaturing real people (which may be the reason why he managed to get so many of
his cartoons published in Syria). Instead, he explained
during Friday's discussion, he would focus on "situations". On one occasion, for example, he portrayed corruption by drawing a bag of intravenous fluid which had fish in it. That changed after the closure of
Addomari and he then started drawing recognisable characters, including the president.
(Some of Ferzat's cartoons, incidentally, will be on show at an exhibition in London this week.)
In a pre-revolutionary situation artists like Ferzat can play an important role in pushing at the
boundaries of permitted dissent. But what about now? Ferzat is unsure: "I don't know if I'm contributing to the revolution or whether my [current] work is a result of the revolution," he said.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the struggle for free expression – once the domain of an elite few – has been taken up by many more. That is a dramatic change, as
Yassin-Kassab, who was chairing the discussion, noted. "Not very long ago people didn't dare to talk politics, even in their own houses," he said – since they feared the children might repeat something they had overheard.
One interesting but little-discussed aspect of this change, described Donatella Della Ratta of Copenhagen university, has been the war of the
"Young or old, I am with the
Photo: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons
It began with a series of pro-government billboards (above) urging people to respect the law. They depicted a raised hand, with messages directed at various sections of the population: "Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law", "Whether girl or boy, I am with the law", and "Whether young or old, I am with the law". Very quickly, though, their messages began to be mocked and subverted by the masses.
Della Ratta writes:
Soon thereafter, parodies of these government posters circulated around cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised hand, each poster carried a different slogan. "I am free," said one raised hand. "I lost my shoes," echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a customary symbol of protest in Arab culture. "I am with Syria" featured on other cyber-posters. "I am not Indian," joked another ...
Others adopted the raised hand motif to poke fun at the president's description of protesters as "germs". "We are all germs" became the title of a
Facebook page which refers to Bashar al-Assad as "Doctor Dettol" (after the disinfectant).
These, Della Ratta argues, are "examples of citizenship regaining its legitimate place over and above concepts such as 'law', 'nation' and 'unity', which the regime has historically monopolised and manipulated".
are all germs"
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 March 2012. Comment.
The tragedy of Amina
A 16-year-old Moroccan girl from Larache killed herself on Saturday by swallowing rat poison after being forced to marry a man who had raped her,
al-Massae newspaper reports (in Arabic).
The girl, referred to as "Amina F", was 15 at the time
she was raped by a man more than 10 years her elder. Following mediation between the two families it was arranged that the couple should be married – thus preserving the families' "honour". The marriage was also approved by a judge, according to the report.
In the more traditional communities of the Middle East it is not unusual to view marriage as a way of "resolving" rape cases. The Jezebel blog
notes that this is also reflected in Moroccan law: the penal code exempts a rapist from punishment if he marries his victim.
Amina's story has prompted expressions of horror
on Twitter and on blogs. Storyful has
a compilation of Twitter reactions, while the writer of MBI's Corner, Mehdi Idrissi,
says: "Amina is my Bouazizi" – referring to the unemployed Tunisian whose self-immolation triggered the revolution against Ben Ali.
But will Amina's death trigger changes in Morocco? Will the judge who authorised the marriage be called to account? Will the law that lets rapists off the hook through marriage be abolished? Will this tragedy have any impact on traditional attitudes towards "honour"? I hope so, but somehow I doubt it.
I am reminded of another story from Morocco, in 2008. A 34-year-old married woman from Mohammedia, near Casablanca, who had three daughters became pregnant again. Her husband required her to have a test – which showed that the fourth child would also be a girl.
The husband, who wanted a son, decided that she was a woman who could only produce girls (even though it is well established that a child's gender is determined by the father) and forced her to give him permission to take a second wife.
Later that day, the woman went with her daughters to a railway line, and all were killed by a train.
Inevitably, there were those in Morocco who blamed the woman for her "sinful" suicide rather than the husband who had driven her to it. The Moroccan writer
Abdellah Taia told me shortly afterwards:
"I knew what people would say: that she wasn’t a Muslim any more and would go directly to hell because of her suicide.
"Here was this woman resisting with last weapon she had got, which was her body. She was already condemned by her husband and even her last cry, her act of resistance (because that is what it was), was again misunderstood. What she did reflected the ignorance, the machismo of the men, the paternalism – everything.
"If something like that happened in France or Britain there would be a huge debate. Everyone would be concerned, the country would be questioning itself and asking: Why? But in Morocco it’s 'OK, well, she’s going to hell and it’s not our affair, and anyway we don't talk about death in our house because it brings bad luck'."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 March 2012. Comment.
with Syrians ... but which Syrians?
This week brings the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising, and the occasion will be marked by
demonstrations against the Assad regime in various countries. One of them will be
in London on Saturday and among those taking part, apparently, will be Lizzie Phelan.
Phelan, readers of this blog will
recall, is the "independent journalist" who claimed that televised scenes
of jubilation in Tripoli over the fall of Gaddafi were faked, and later in an interview with Russia Today claimed to have seen "massive" support in Syria for the
Phelan has now declared her support for Saturday's demonstration – indeed, she says she will be speaking there – but she seems to have different ideas from the organisers as to what it is about.
According to her
blog, the aim is to "defend Syria against the illegal zionist and imperialist conspiracy". There's no mention of opposing the Assad regime and she urges people to show solidarity with those who are "defending their country's sovereignty with their lives".
All very confusing.
Her blog also links to a video clip, but with a note saying: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by
But hang on a minute. In a subsequent blog post it becomes clear that Phelan and the anti-Assad protesters are not talking about the same demonstration. It appears there will be two, both in London on Saturday afternoon.
This is the one Phelan will be attending – opposing "the western backed conspiracy against
Syria" and supporting "the resistant Syrian state".
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2012. Comment.
move to regulate websites
Daft attempts to control what is published on websites have long been a speciality of the Saudi authorities (here and
here, for example) but now the infection seems to be spreading to Lebanon.
The Lebanese information minister, Walid Daouk, has proposed a law that would require
all website owners to register with his ministry. They would
also have to register the website's "official manager" who must not be anyone convicted of "a misdemeanour or felony" and who will not be allowed to manage more than one website at the same time.
The draft law prohibits "any publication by electronic means affecting morals and general ethics, and related to gambling games".
It also seeks to bring websites within the ambit of Lebanon's existing media laws, including Press Law 382/94.
The draft defines a website as an "electronic information system which has clearly defined name and address and
data" – which would appear to include blogs and even the smallest websites belonging to businesses and
The text of the proposed law has been published
in Arabic by al-Nahar newspaper and
in English on Joseph Choufani's
The council of ministers has postponed discussion of it for the time being, though it is likely to come back later with amendments. Meanwhile, there's a campaign against
it on Twitter, with the #StopLIRA
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2012. Comment.
killings in Iraq
A new wave of killings is reported in Baghdad, targeting youngsters of unconventional appearance.
Reuters says at least 14 have been stoned to death in the past three weeks, though there are claims that the total may be much higher. Lists have also been circulated naming those who will be next.
Scott Long, formerly of Human Rights Watch, has reported the story in detail on his blog (here,
The youngsters are loosely described as "emos", though Long views the attacks as part of a more generalised moral panic over what is considered to be youth deviance – "gelled spiky hair, long hair, tight jeans, black clothes, skull pendants, a swish of the hip, effeminacy, homosexuality, or listening to rock music".
Reuters quotes a couple of leaflets circulated in Baghdad:
"We strongly warn you, to all the obscene males and females, if you will not leave this filthy work within four days the punishment of God will descend upon you at the hand of the Mujahideen."
and another listing 20 names ...
"We are the Brigades of Anger. We warn you, if you do not get back to sanity and the right path, you will be killed."
Blame for the killings has been directed at local militias and the Iraqi government seems unwilling to take action to stop them. Last week, an interior ministry spokesman talked of "fabricated news reports" and asserted that "no murder case has been recorded with the interior ministry on so-called 'emo' grounds".
However, a press release in Arabic, posted on the interior ministry's website on February 13 (around the time the latest wave of killings began) says the ministry's director of community police has been looking into "the phenomenon of emo or Satan-worshippers" and "they have official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible".
Exactly what was meant by "eleminate" is unclear. The statement went on to talk about tackling the issue through
Baghdad's schools, though it said this would be very difficult "because of the lack of a women’s cadre in the district ... especially as the phenomenon had spread most among girls aged 14 to 18 years".
The "emo killings" bring a new twist to what has become a familiar pattern in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein – outbreaks of "moral" vigilantism that have included
murdering barbers who give customers "un-Islamic" (ie western) haircuts and men who are
gay or believed to be
This vigilantism has several dimensions, tapping into social anxieties about cultural change and a decline in "traditional" values. It is partly about fending off "western" influences, partly about religion and partly about enforcing behavioural conformity – gender stereotypes in particular.
A report from Human Rights Watch in 2010 suggested that many of these fears centre on "the idea that men are becoming less 'manly', failing tests of customary masculinity".
It is also worth noting that Iraqi interior ministry's press release explains the term "emo", for those who have never heard of it, as "Satan-worshippers". Presumably this derives from their penchant for black clothes and skull-and-crossbones trinkets. Similarly spurious allegations of satanism figured in Egypt's notorious
Queen Boat gay trial a decade ago, and have also led to the arrest or imprisonment of heavy metal fans in several Arab countries,
including Morocco and
Private performances of
"satanic" rock and metal music are raided from time to time in Saudi Arabia, and in 2010 the religious police there claimed to have
"foiled" a gathering of emos in Damman.
Shocking though the Iraqi killings are, the attitudes that drive them are not uncommon in other Arab countries. The
key difference in Iraq is that society has become more brutalised over the years and the rule of law is more limited, allowing vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 March 2012. Comment.
At a court case in Britain on Friday, the Libyan government
won possession of a $16 million house said to belong to Colonel Gaddafi's son,
The luxurious London property (shown
here, inside and out, in a set of photographs on the Telegraph's website), was acquired in 2009 by Capitana Seas Limited, a company based in the financially-secretive British Virgin Islands. Normally, a Virgin Islands registration would be enough to conceal the identity of its real owner but, as a result of UN sanctions imposed on Libya, the British authorities were able to establish that the beneficial owner of the company – and the house – was Saadi
In the High Court yesterday, Justice Popplewell ruled that the property had been "wrongfully and unlawfully purchased" using funds belonging to the Libyan state. He ordered Capitana Seas to hand over the house within 14 days and to pay legal costs of $188,300.
The Libyan government had argued that Saadi's official salary as a commander at the defence ministry was not enough to cover the cost of the house, nor was the income from his brief career as a professional footballer in Italy. Saadi is currently believed to be under house arrest in Niger and is said to have been aware of the court case.
The case is important because this is thought to be the first time that a country involved in the Arab Spring has successfully recovered stolen assets. It may open the way to other cases, including one concerning property in Toronto owned by Saadi
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 March 2012. Comment.
defiant at Human Rights Council
Last November I wrote about Syria's rather surreal attempts
to persuade the UN Human Rights Council that it is making progress on human rights –
"the right to peaceful assembly is afforded under the Syrian
constitution", "a human rights syllabus is taught in relevant educational establishments," etc, etc.
I noted at the time that in Syria's case the "working group report" which normally follows these sessions of the council had not been published. After a long delay
it is now online and it's worth a look – if only to illustrate the political antics that take place in the Human Rights Council. Comments from other countries, and Syria's responses to them, are in paragraphs 19-99.
In all, 51 countries made comments – not all of them critical. Cuba "welcomed the adoption of a number of measures and the opening of a dialogue with the [Syrian] opposition", Nicaragua sympathised with "the difficult situation in which Syria found itself", North Korea "commended Syria on its efforts to maintain security and stability", Iran noted Syria's "achievements in economic, social and cultural rights", and so on.
Canada, on the other hand, got a verbal lashing from Syria for saying it was "greatly concerned by the grave human rights situation".
Syria "expressed its consternation at the hostility demonstrated [by Canada] towards Syria and questioned what the real intention was behind its calls for reforms and human rights."
Syria's basic response to the council was that it was happy to listen to advice from "true friends" (paragraph 12) but would disregard the rest:
"While it could accept advice from some African, Asian and Latin American countries, the Western colonial powers had no right to give advice on human rights, especially after having killed over 50,000 Libyans only a short while ago, and a million Iraqis after the American invasion, as well as thousands in Côte d’Ivoire and central Africa, without mentioning Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Western countries did not care about human rights, but only sought to secure their supply of oil and mineral resources. If they truly cared about human rights they would also care about the rights of the Palestinian people and not use their veto against them." [paragraph 10]
Syria continues to blame the current
situation on foreign plots and media lies:
"During the past seven months, Syria had experienced many threats and was subjected to a media war conducted through misinformation and lies. Syria was faced with the hegemony of the West, the United States of America and Israel, and was the target of terrorist threats.
"For this reason, the law enforcement organs faced many challenges. The Government would submit to the High Commissioner for Human Rights a list of martyrs among the police and security officials, over 1,100 of whom had been killed by terrorists who received support from some neighbouring countries. These countries, whose actions violated the right to life, were the same countries that were holding conferences on human rights and democracy.
"Syria noted that the killings were accompanied by incitement in the regional and international media, which provided instructions and directed these criminal activities. Billions of dollars had been smuggled into Syria in recent months and distributed among
extremists, arms dealers, drug traffickers and criminal organizations, and pay TV channels were fabricating footage available to those paying the highest price.
"Syria asserted that it was in a position to provide the Human Rights Council with audio-visual evidence exposing the lies of these TV stations and their backers, and indicated that the Council procedures as explained by the Bureau did not allow for the viewing of a short video supporting the State’s assertion in this regard. Syria referred to numerous media stories about Zeinab El-Hosni, the girl who allegedly had been murdered by the security forces, but who in fact was alive and well and had given her testimony on Syrian television." [Paragraphs 8 and 9]
The report contains 60 recommendations that the Syrian government says it supports, 26 that Syria says have already been implemented, 15 that it says it is in the process of implementing, 25 that it is considering, 41 that it rejects and 13 that it says are "based on incorrect assumptions or premises". The latter include calls to end violence and repression against peaceful protesters and to allow free and unimpeded access for humanitarian
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 March 2012. Comment.